Issue 519 to

A Sea Change in California Politics?

This was an exciting year for governance in California, as many hard-won reforms were finally implemented.

Urbanist Article

What happened: The year 2012 saw a record 18.2 million voters registered in California, the debut of online voter registration, new district lines thanks to the Citizens Redistricting Commission and top-two primaries where the two candidates with the most votes in any election for state office ran against each other in the general election, regardless of party affiliation.


What it means: This was an exciting year for governance in California, as many hard-won reforms were finally implemented. In general, these developments represent a successful (and underreported) sea change in California politics. Over the past 5 years, California Forward, in partnership with others including Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, has fostered political reforms such as a citizen-based legislative redistricting system and a new primary election system that reduces partisanship, both of which are changing the culture of our electoral system. A change in legislative term limits has the potential to strengthen the legislature as an institution. But at the same time a new attempt at budgeting reform, Prop. 31, lost at the ballot in November, showing that there is still work to be done to move California forward.


Online Voter Registration

While social media and other technological innovations have taken much of campaigning into the digital realm, it took a while for voting to follow suit. Thankfully, California implemented Online Voter Registration (OVR) ahead of the November 6th election with robust security measures that ensured its resounding success.

We heard many stories from many other states throughout the country about attempts to marginalize minority voters in the name of addressing purported voter fraud, but the narrative was quite the opposite in the Golden State, where Latino, Asian-American and young voters came out en masse. Online voter registration made it much easier for swaths of newly eligible voters to make their voices heard. Polls were extremely busy throughout the day, but county registrars we spoke with observed that voting went smoothly and that online voter registration was a huge boon to turnout across the state.

Citizens Redistricting Commission

The manner in which congressional districts have been drawn has been as aspect of our political process that was sorely lacking in transparency. Often done in backrooms with incumbents having a large say in how to gerrymander districts to include supporters and exclude potential opposition, change was imperative. California Forward was a proponent of the non-partisan Citizens' Redistricting Commission (CRC) since its inception. Equal parts Republican and Democrat, the process was dramatically open compared to previous iterations with multiple public hearings held across the state during which citizens could offer their feedback on the local maps drawn by the CRC. These meetings were also available as webcasts and the feedback loop was as important a component to shaping the new districts as the members of the commission. Though the result was challenged in court and via the ballot, the results were firmly upheld in both instances, thus preserving a crucial shift toward open government for the citizens of California.

Top Two Primaries

In December, we saw an incoming freshman class of state lawmakers who have been given more leeway under the new, longer term limits enacted via the June primaries. With the option of serving 12 years in their new roles, the idea is that they will be freed from the specter of campaigning for a reelection bid just around the corner and instead able to focus on the work before them and will be able to better serve the communities of interest lawmakers represent.

It's a different ballgame when districts are no longer composed of the strictly party-faithful and instead better represent the diverse make of the state overall. This is why California Forward fought hard to push these reforms through and will be championing them once enacted. Lawmakers can now focus on determining cost-effective solutions to the myriad of problems the state faces with the certainty that they will be held accountable for the results of their actions.

Many questions remain about the state's fiscal health, its business climate and its overburdened educational system. But we adamantly believe that the future is bright for the Golden State. With record voter registration bucking the predicted steep drop-off from 2008’s participation levels, trigger cuts to education and other areas avoided, the Citizens Redistricting Commission district lines upheld and two new structural reforms to the election process in place, Californians should indeed be proud that November 6 went as smoothly as it did.

Fred Silva is Senior Fiscal Policy Advisor for California Forward, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to improve our governance and state-local finance systems. Christopher Nelson is California Forward’s social media and content specialist.